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August 21, 2014 11:15 AM Reformicon Progress Report

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone interested in the whole “reform conservative” conversation needs to read Byron York’s update on the “reformicons” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Despite giving controversial topics like foreign policy, immigration and climate change a wide berth in their book A Room to Grow, the reformicons, reports York, are experiencing a combination of pushback and indifference.

The reformers face resistance not just from the corners of the conservative world that disagree with them on taxes, immigration, and other, perhaps lesser issues. They are also under attack from those in the Republican establishment who see no need to reevaluate GOP policies. According to this faction, the party doesn’t have a policy problem; it has a messaging problem.
Whether or not that’s true — whether what’s hurting the GOP more is bad policies or poor communication — the cure is the same: a good Republican presidential nominee. A smart, talented, and appealing candidate could convince reluctant politicians to embrace new ideas, pull big donors and grass-roots activists onto the same track, and focus the energy of the party on defeating Democrats rather than fighting among itself. It can be done; in 1992, Bill Clinton dragged a reluctant Democratic Party toward a repositioning that allowed it to win national elections again. It would take a politician of Clinton’s talents to do the same for the Republicans. Whether there is such a person in the GOP at this moment is not clear. We’ll know more in 2016.

Well, actually, we’ll know a lot sooner than that, since presidential campaigns don’t suddenly appear on the horizon fifteen minutes before the Iowa Caucuses.

York allows as how Marco Rubio might be the best bet for a reformicon Revolution From Above strategy. But that’s mostly because he’s interested while others are not, and he remains a long shot in 2016 thanks to his fatal apostasy (from which he is struggling to reverse himself) on immigration policy.

One other item in York’s piece caught my attention, involving the finances of the reformicon vehicle the YG Network:

The publisher of Room to Grow, the YG Network, is a nonprofit policy center, plus a super PAC, devoted to electing Republican candidates. Like many of its peers, it spends more on fundraising, salaries, and television ads than it does on developing new ideas. In 2012, it collected over $12.7 million in contributions (it is not required to disclose its donors) and paid its top strategist, the former Cantor aide John Murray, $630,000. The group’s super PAC, the YG Action Fund, raised about $5.9 million in the 2012 election cycle, $5 million of it from the Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. With that kind of money available, organizations tend to focus on perpetuating themselves, even if their original goals fall by the wayside. As the old adage goes, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket” — a fate that could await the reformers.

The YG Network clearly has a lot more money at its disposal than the Democratic Leadership Council—credited or blamed with having a big impact on Democratic politics of a dimension the reformicons can only dream of—ever did. Also unlike the DLC, most of its leading wonks and analysts are on somebody else’s payroll. I like a number of reformicons individually, and think their work is potentially important. But I’m less impressed every day with their actual impact on the GOP.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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